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Resolved: Water should be considered national property

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-This article is based on a [ Debatabase] entry written by [[Alastair Endersby]]. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.+This article is based, in part, on a [ Debatabase] entry written by [[Alastair Endersby]]. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.
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Revision as of 03:57, 4 February 2008

This is the Spring 2008 Global Debates Topic. To learn more about the TPS Global Debates, click here.

YOU CAN BECOME AN EDITOR OF THIS PAGE. DEBATEPEDIA IS A WIKI THAT ANYONE CAN EDIT! BE BOLD, CLICK EDIT, AND HELP MAKE THIS PAGE INTO A VALUABLE PUBLIC RESOURCE THAT THOUSANDS WILL READ. SEE THE GETTING STARTED TUTORIAL. This article is based, in part, on a Debatabase entry written by Alastair Endersby. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Introduction to the Resolution:

The direction of the debate This resolution can be interpreted to make a distinction between, in the affirmative, water as national property (including both government control of water and privatization) and, on the con side of the debate, the notion of water as part of the global commons with no ownership at the nation-state or corporate level. In essence, this debate is between ownership of any kind (national or private), on the one hand, and non-ownership on the other (global commons).

Another direction that this debate could possibly take is in comparing national ownership of water resources (government control) vs. privatization. This debate is presented separately from this page at Debate:Water Privatization. While participants in The People Speak Global Debates can certainly take this direction, the intended direction of the above resolution is mainly toward a comparison between water-ownership nationally and no water-ownership within a global commons.

Why this debate is important: The global water problem Water is the commonest substance on earth and constantly renews itself through evaporation and rainfall. 97% of the world's water is in the oceans and most of what is left is locked up in ice caps and glaciers, etc., leaving just 1% of the world's water available for human consumption. This water must not only satisfy domestic use, but also industry and agriculture. Water can be an important political issue in the developed world, with arguments about privatisation, water metering and effective regulation in Britain, over the allocation of scarce water resources in Australia and California, about foreign ownership and pricing in Argentina, or about the use of (hugely expensive) desalinated water for agriculture in Saudi Arabia. Water is even more crucial to the developing world. Over a billion people still have no decent water supply and 2.4 billion do not have proper sanitation; over 60% of global ill health can be linked to water. Without tackling these problems, little progress can be made on other development issues (e.g. children required by the family to fetch water several miles cannot attend school, sick people cannot work, infant mortality will remain very high). The UN's International Year of Fresh Water in 2003 focused attention on these issues, and produced commitments to halve the number of people without access to clean water over the next decade. Estimates of the cost of these targets range from $35 billion to $100 billion a year in addition to the c$75 billion already invested in water each year in the developing world at present. Where this money should come from, and how it should be spent remain controversial issues.[1]

Limited H20 Molecules Remembering the famous words of Benjamin Franklin [2], "When the well is dry, we know the worth of water," in contemporary times, many educational debates over the ownership of water is connected to the limited availability of the resource. What makes water such an important topic is the fact that the earth is a closed system, with only a certain amount of molecules participating in the hydrologic cycle, or the water cycle of evaporation, condensation, and percipitation. In the University of Alberta's New Trail article, "Water, Water, Everywhere . . ." Kim Green plainly states: "There is no such thing as new water. The Earth is a closed system and the water that quenched the thirst of dinosaurs is the same recycled water we’re drinking today. In fact, it’s been estimated that eight people before you have consumed every glass of water you drink so the same molecules of H2O that passed over the lips of Napoleon, Columbus, Joan of Arc or Shakespeare could be snaking their way through an underground labyrinth of pipes to a faucet in your home or office" ([3]). When a limited resource, such as water, is further threatened by forces such as global warming and pollution, then a debate over who owns the last remaining "clean" H2O molecules becomes all the more important.

Free Access as Democratic The limited liquid resource, along with being affected by pollution, is also affected by socio-political histories. Many ancient civilizations began with people settling around major rivers, so, in a sense, historically, water as property has always been an issue. In various parts of the ancient world, kings, emperors, and warrior chiefs often exercised some sort of control over fresh water supplies. The control of water brought power and the degree of control often indicated the type of leadership. Over time, water accessibility became a metaphor for governance. Today, when most of the world is democratically dedicated to values of equality and equal access, the ownership of water seems to undermine basic democratic values. In The Meaning of Water, Veronica Strang declares: "Water is always a metaphor of social, economic and political relationships – a barometer of the extent to which identity, power and resources are shared. Following Wittfogel, various writers (Bennett 1995, Reisner 2001 [1986], Worster 1985) have shown how the control of water has empowered the Church, the State, or other elite institutions" (21). Complicating democratic values with potentially despotic control is certainly a complicating concern to the issue of owning water molecules . . . at least in their liquid form.

Respecting Water And then, there is you, a human being. Human beings are mostly comprised of water, so they need fresh water to live. With population increases, more and more people need it. But, as a global problem, certain areas of the world have more supplies of fresh water than other areas. Indeed, within a country, certain regions may enjoy more rain than others. In Managing Water, James Winpenny declares: "In some societies water has long been treated as a scarce and valuable resource. In the majority of countries, however, water has been treated as though it were available in unlimited quantities . . . (2). However, since we know how molecules work in a closed system, this debate asks us to explore different ways of treating, perhaps even respecting, water. The vast majority of the world's water supply is inaccessible, but what is accessible has been threatened by increasing rates of pollution, climate change, and population change. In a global market economy, democratic access to water may also change, but until then, we have a democratic obligation to explore the issue from both sides.

Motions: What motions are proposed pro and con in this debate?


  • This house does not see a global commons as feasible or enforceable.
  • This house believes that nation-states should have sovereign control of their water resources.
  • This house does not consider water a right, but rather a commodity.
  • This house favors privatization of water utilities, arguing for its economic benefits.
  • This house favors the free-market trade of water resources.


  • This house believes that water should be considered part of the "global commons".
  • This house believes that nations should not have exclusive sovereign control over water resources; that international law must have significant control in a "global commons".
  • This house believes water should not be privatized.
  • This house believes international trade agreements favor corporations and undermine democratic control of water.
  • This house proposes a World Water Parliament or some international governing body for managing a global commons of water.

Sovereignty: Should states have sovereign control over their water resources?


  • Water resources should be considered part of national sovereignty. There is little difference between water and other resources that are considered national property. What differentiates water from minerals and forests, generally considered part of national sovereignty? They are all finite resources of the earth that can and are exploited by humans. Does it matter much, as the opposition contends, that water is more globally fluid than other resources? Water's presence in the territory of a nation-state is often very specific to the geographic features and climate within a nation-state. The people of a nation often identify very strongly with these water resources and geographic features, considering them part of their national heritage, identity, and sovereign control.
  • A global commons of water would jeopardize many elements of national sovereignty. If water resources within the boundaries of a nation state are considered part of the global commons, this would have harmful implications for sovereignty in general. A "slippery slope" would be created in which the sovereign right of states to control their natural resources would be violated in many more ways than with water resources alone. Forests, mines and minerals might all become subject to international control at a cost to national sovereignty.
  • Sovereign control over water and international legal controls can co-exist. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held at Stockholm in 1972 created Stockholm Principle 21, which gives states full sovereignty over their natural resources, while demanding that they act responsibly toward the global effects of resource exploitation.[4] These as well as legally binding international measures are a way to enable sovereign ownership while achieving desired global controls, which is the most important objective after all.
  • There is little difference in ownership between water as national property and water as part of the global commons. While it is common to think of a national resource as the "property" of a nation, it is important to realize that a national resource is actually not owned by anyone in particular, but rather by the collective body of citizens included in the social contract of a state.[5] In a global commons, the only difference would be that the world's citizenry would be in the position of collective ownership over water resources. Instead of considering water a public resource at the national level, it would be considered a public resource at the global level. Therefore, this debate is not between considering water national "property" versus global "non-property", but rather it is between considering water part of a national commons or a global commons.


  • Resources such as water have a place in the global ecosystem that should not be controlled by nations: The World's ecosystems are highly interdependent. Water, being the most fundamental resource to life, is essential to the World's ecosystem and its interdependence. Water, therefore, should not be nationalized, as this distorts the proper place of water in the global ecological context. While a certain exploitation of water may be in a nation's own interests, it may not be in the proper ecological interests of the world. This is why a global commons for water is necessary.
  • Competing nation-states have an interest in water privatization, problematically.
    If we conclude that privatization is bad in the context of water resources (this argument is made below), then a major concern surrounding national ownership is the potential that a nation will privatize the water resources that it "owns". There are substantial incentives for nations to do this. In particular, competition between states for economic power creates a perverse incentive for states to privatize their water industries. If a nation has complete sovereignty over water resources, then there is nothing stopping that nation from privatizing these resources. Under an international commons, however, privatization would be foreclosed as an option, preventing the major costs associated with this action.

Governance: Can nations do a better job of governing water resources?


  • Nation states are necessary entities for governing water resources: It is not clear how the governance of a global commons of water resources might proceed. Who would decide how water resources can be used? What democratic processes would be employed? Nation-states today, typically, have adequate democratic processes and administrative structures to manage and govern the distribution of water. As democracies, the voice of the people can be clearly expressed in votes and other well defined avenues. It is not clear how such citizen-participation and governance would occur in a global commons. The nation-state also generally has a strong decision-making structure with a head-of-state that is valuable in responding to crises, such as a drought. the global commons lacks such a structure.
  • A global commons is not feasible at this time in history when national sovereignty and ownership persist: It is not reasonable to expect that a global commons could be established at this stage in human history. Even if it were a good idea in principle, it is not feasible. Could we really expect that Russia or Brazil or the United States would relinquish sovereign control of lakes found in their territories to an international global commons? No.


  • Water nationalization invites damaging water diversions: When water is nationalized, countries often stake claim to water resources that naturally flow across borders. A country may divert a river's flow so that its waters can be exploited more by its own countrymen. This does serious ecological and economical harm, both locally and downstream.
  • The notion of the global commons is a natural part of the shift toward a global world-view and global governance: The existence of the United Nations and the growth of international trade agreements and "globalization" are all signs of a general trend toward global governance. The European Union, ASEAN, and NAFTA all demonstrate a clear, historical movement toward a reduced role for nation states and a greater role for larger, international, global governing bodies. This is all part of a general shift toward a greater global world-view. "Global citizens" are emerging in this new world-view, and a global perspective of the interconnectedness of the world's ecosystems is emerging as well. The notion of global warming being a global problem without boundaries adds credence to this perspective. In this global environmental context, the notion of water resources being part of the global commons is not far off.
  • If there is a will there is a way in establishing an enforceable global commons: In order for a global commons to be established, countries must realize that such a commons is in their and the world's broader interests, and voluntarily sign on to such an international agreement. As mentioned above, there is a trend toward increasing support for a global commons on water resources, and more countries are coming around to the concept. While many industrialized countries continue to resist, this is the only obstruction to the creation of a sound, enforceable international commons on water resources. In general, if there is a will there is a way in regards to creating a soundly governed global commons.

International security: Would national ownership be superior for international security?


  • Water is a national security resource that states must be able to own and protect. Securing drinking water for nationals and water reserves for fire emergencies and for crops in severe droughts is all very important. But, this cannot be done if water is considered part of an international commons. Who decides, in a crisis for example, how emergency water supplies should be used? Should these decisions be left to a slow-moving international body? No, states must own certain water resources so that they can make quick emergency decisions to protect their national security interests.
  • International governing bodies will not adequately enforce a global commons: While water is a resource that is capable of causing international conflicts, how is it that the international community might respond. The problem is that the United Nations and the international community often are unable or unwilling to take serious, intervening action during conflicts. This makes it unlikely that a global commons would actually help stabilize international security.


  • Without a global commons powerful nations will hog water resources - With scarce resources among nations of different power, more powerful nations will use their strength to ensure that they gain access at the expense of less powerful nations. Israel, for example, is commonly cited as hogging water resources at the expense of Palestinian territories.
  • Cross-border tribal management of water resources undermines sovereign ownership schemes. - Particularly in Africa, any sovereign ownership of water might not make sense in the context of tribal affiliations and water-sharing that transcends national boundaries and sovereignty. It might be destabilizing.

Trade agreements: Is the proposition supported by international trade agreements and is this good?


  • A global commons would fly in the face of international trade agreements:
    International trade agreements are between nations and private companies within those nations. The right of private companies to own and manage water is often secured by international trade agreements. A global commons would, however, attempt to deprive companies of owning and managing water resources. This would fly in the face of international trade agreements. Would these trade agreements have to be re-written? Would existing water companies, which are supporting thousands of employees, have to be dissolved? This all seems highly costly and untenable.


  • Nations are signing away control of water resources to transnational corporations in trade agreements - Governments, with pressure and competitive incentives to privatize, are signing away their control over domestic water supplies to trade agreements such as NAFTA. These agreements give far too much control to transnational corporations, and demonstrate that nations, with their "ownership" over water resources and freedom to choose course, are not acting responsibly. Part of the problem is that nation-states have an interest in making their national industries more competitive globally, in part through trade agreements. A global commons is a good solution to this problem.

Privatization: Is water a resource that should be owned by private companies, versus a global commons?


  • Water is not a public right What qualifies water as a right? Do people have a right to food, shelter, clothing or other necessities to sustaining life? No. We would hope that people would be able to afford water so that they can survive, but this need does not qualify water as a right. Water ownership, therefore, is legitimate.
  • Water can be treated as an economic good - Water can be treated just like any other economic good. Natural resources have always been exploited by humans and sold as products. Water is no different. And, water follows the basic principles of economic value in the sense that people are willing to pay for it. Therefore, water should be treated as an economic good, owned, and sold at the most competitive price in the market.
  • Even if water is considered a right, privatization is the best way to protect that right What is the best way to provide quality water, reliably and efficiently to all that need it? The answer includes private companies, which are generally capable of harnessing market forces more efficiently so that they can reliable provide quality water to those that need it. Free market forces have consistently demonstrated themselves through history of being better able to supply demand, and fewer costs, more efficiently, more reliably, and more productively to an economy. These forces should be harnessed in the supply of water globally.
  • Problems of water supply need to be addressed with private investments, and this can be viewed as a means to securing any rights to water. Even in the developed world, much water (up to 50% in Canada) is wasted through leaks in pipes and ageing infrastructure. The public sector has failed to finance repairs, making it important to utilize private sector funds and investments in water resources and infrastructures. For these investments to be attractive to the private sector, water companies must be allowed to make a profit through realistic water charges that reflect the costs of supply. Issues of quality, equity and environmental standards can be handled through effective regulation of the private sector.[7]


  • Water is a human right, not a commodity - Water is fundamental to human life. Humans are aqueous creatures that depend on water for the flow of suspended chemicals through our bodies. In this way, water assumes a special role in enabling life, standing above all other factors that allow us to survive; water is the most fundamental to life. Our right to life depends on water, and, by extension, so do all of our rights that depend on life; rights to free speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion... This all makes water an exceptional, fundamental part of protecting our rights as individuals. Therefore, access to water should be considered a right in itself that cannot be owned by a government and/or private company. Rather, water should be part of the global commons.
  • Profit companies are inherently incapable of securing the right to water - Some argue that even if water is considered a right, companies can reliably provide it to those in need.
    This has not proven to be the case. Why? Companies inherently have an interest in profits over the interests of individuals. This does not mean that companies are evil, but simply that they are profit-maximizing entities that do not have a fundamental interest in ensuring a citizen's right to access water. It is common that private companies increase rates dramatically, forcing individuals that can't afford these higher rates to move to another location.
  • Environmental and health standards are often violated by private ownership of water: Private companies are profit-maximizing entities that often view environmental, health, and safety standards as obstructive to their profit interests. This is a problem, particularly in the context of water, which is so fundamentally important to the environment, health, and life.

Economics: Would private ownership of water be more economical than a global commons?


  • Water privatization is more economically efficient - For profit companies are managed by individuals with a direct for-profit stake in the efficiency and productivity of their company. If they manage their company poorly, they lose money.
    If they manage their company well, they profit. It is this direct profit-interest at the managerial level that ensures for-profit companies, in general, perform efficiently. Conversely, there is not profit interest at the managerial level in government-owned companies. If the government-owned company performs highly efficiently or somewhat efficiently, it matters less to managers of these companies because it does not typically affect them monetarily. Therefore, for-profit companies have a greater incentive structure for the efficient operations of its company, and the empirical evidence generally demonstrates this to hold true.
  • Politics often prevent elected officials from adjusting prices and investing appropriately in water utilities. It is often unpolitical for elected officials to make tough, bold, sacrificial, or risky moves in regard to water. While the water infrastructure for a city, for example, may desparately need repair, an elected official may be afraid, for numerous reasons, to raise taxes to supply the funds that can repair the city's water infrastructure. As a result, the elected official does not raise the funds through taxes and avoids solving the problem. This is simply an illustration of instances in which public officials take into account considerations that are not in the public interest and prevent proper funding of the water infrastructure. Private investments in the water infrastructure are a very appropriate means to raise funds to solve problems like this, particularly when public officials will not act in the public interest.
  • When water is not treated as an economic good it is wasted On a domestic level, unmetered access to water means that consumers do not pay according to the quantity they use and so they will use it wastefully. At a national level, subsidized water for farmers and industry encourages wasteful methods and inappropriate crops (e.g. growing water-hungry cotton in California or Central Asia, both naturally areas of semi-desert), often with a damaging impact upon the environment. Pricing water according to its true cost would promote more efficient and environmentally-friendly practices, e.g. the use of drip-irrigation or dry farming in agriculture.[8]


  • For-profit water companies seek to maximize profits at higher cost to consumers Water privatization often leads to price-hikes two or three times higher than the price under public water-utility ownership. This might be the case despite the fact that a for-profit water company is operating more efficiently than a governmen-owned company. The problem is, however, that the for-profit company is pocketing PROFITS off the top of what it is charging the public, whereas a government-owned company would not be pocketing these profits. Therefore, we have to ask, what does "economic efficiency" mean? The reality is that for-profit companies do produce greater "economic efficiency" than government-owned companies, yes, but typically at greater cost to consumers due to the pocketing of profits by these companies. In this way, privatization is more "efficient" for the owners of water utilities, but not necessarily for the general public that pays more than before. This is particularly wrong-headed in the context of water being a right that should be available equally at affordable costs to all socio-economic groups in need of it.
  • Water privatization is at odds with the need to conserve water resources - For-profit water companies sell water at a price per gallon. There is a direct incentive for them to sell as many gallons of water as is possible. Therefore, there is no inherent incentive for them to conserve water resources. This has implications in regards to the environment, but also the economy. If water becomes highly scarce, for example, because water companies are pumping as fast and as much of it as possible, then this may force a major spike in water prices, creating economic shocks. We cannot trust profit-interests to manage scarce water resources appropriately to avoid such problems; government management is necessary that has the public interest more directly at heart.

Private investments: Are private investments in water desirable or should they be avoided?


  • Rapid growth of water infrastructure can only be achieved through private investments - Water infrastructure is very complicated and expensive to build and maintain. While the government could be involved in supplying all the resources to create this infrastructure, it is beneficial to allow the infusion of capital investments in such projects. This can allow for greater funding of these projects, and thus a more reliable and quality supply of water. Equally important, private investments can much more rapidly grow a water infrastructure to meet rapidly growing demand often found in emerging economies.
  • Problems of water supply need to be addressed with huge investments, particularly in the developing world where many people have no access to decent fresh water: Even in the developed world, much water (up to 50% in Canada) is wasted through leaks in pipes and ageing infrastructure. The public sector has failed to provide the money for this investment so private involvement is essential. For this investment to be attractive to the private sector, water companies must be allowed to make a profit through realistic water charges that reflect the costs of supply. Issues of quality, equity and environmental standards can be handled through effective regulation.[9]


  • The problem with private investments in water supply is that large returns are demanded:
    Large sums are needed to meet global water targets, but the private sector will only provide these in return for a large commercial return, meaning that the true cost of the investment will eventually be much higher than if it were publicly funded. Investment from governments and donors is preferable to privatisation as they can target investment at the most needy, rather than focusing upon the most profitable opportunities. Water supply is also a natural monopoly, so private companies have no competitive pressures to drive up quality and drive down prices. Even in the developed world, the experience of water privatisation is not encouraging: in England shareholders cashed in and much of the industry ended up in foreign hands while prices went up, yet droughts in the 1990s still led to widespread rationing. Recent electricity supply crises in California have also shown how badly regulation of private utilities can fail. Meanwhile Australia has successfully reformed its water supply system while retaining it in public hands.[10]

Environment: Is the privatization of water better for the environment than a global commons?


  • Failing to price water economically is bad for the environment:
    Proper pricing of water would reflect all the costs of providing it, including the environmental ones. Water exchanges (such as Australia's one for the Murray-Darling basin) can start by taking account of the needs of the environment and then trading the remaining water efficiently through the actions of the market. Pricing water according to consumption, e.g. through domestic metering, also discourages wasteful use and so reduces the demands on natural water systems such as rivers and underground aquifers.[11]


  • Private companies are unlikely to care for the environment: Their duties are to their shareholders, not to society at large and nature in general. They will seek to reduce costs and maximise profits, most likely at the expense of high environmental standards. Attempting to use market mechanisms such as water exchanges to protect the environment is also a bad idea. The value of healthy ecosystems and biodiversity is impossible to calculate. Trying to do so makes the environment just another resource to be exploited, rather than protected for its own sake.[12]

Antarctica and southern ocean: Should Antarctica and the southern ocean be open to national claims?



Pro / con resources



Videos pro and con


"Suez Thinks Long-term About Providing Water Services" February 8, 2007


Maude Barlow - Speaking in Edmonton[13]


  • "Thirst" - Warns of corporate control over water resources and calls for a public water trust. Produced by independent filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman
  • "Dead in the Water" (2004) -

External links


Key words

  • National ownership, national sovereignty.
  • Global commons, public commons.
  • Global water governance
  • res communis
  • the common heritage of mankind.
  • World Park.
  • Shared legacy
  • Public trust
  • Privatization.
  • Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZs)
  • Water Justice.

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